INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—What’s it like to have 6-foot-9 John Isner toss the ball high over his head and reach up to serve it to you? I got as close as a non-opponent is going to get today. The front row of the press seats on Stadium 2 here allow you to sit directly behind the player who is receiving in the ad court. I’ve heard players talk about the effect of seeing Isner from that vantage point; it sounds similar to the way hitters in baseball describe facing a beanpole pitcher like Randy Johnson: He’s on top of you of you in a hurry. And that’s exactly where Isner, who gritted out a 7-5, 7-5 third-round win over Juan Monaco in the high noon heat today, appeared to be as he set up. It looked like he was already halfway to the net.
This surreally intimidating image—it felt like Monaco was starting the point uphill—fits with how I sometimes think of Isner: Less as a pro than as a tennis experiment hatched on the campus of the University of Georgia in the early years of this decade. The project’s thesis might have been: In the future, tennis players will be 7-feet tall. How will they pull it off?
Isner’s game is filled with assets and liabilities that he attempts to ultimately work to his advantage over the course of a match. Much of the time they cancel each other out—hence Isner’s penchant for tiebreaker sets and epic five-setters. And there have been periods when it seemed like reality would prevail and the demands of the modern game, where movement and stamina now trump power, would prove to be too much for a four-year college student who often appears to be on his last legs, and who, when he mishits a ball, can look like a garden-variety hacker. But Isner, who is verging on the Top 10 for the first time at the relatively advanced age of 26 (he'll be 27 next month), has gradually learned to exploit his strengths and shield his weaknesses. Judging by his win today, he's even begun to use his weaknesses to his advantage.
The most obvious asset-liability combination is Isner’s serve and return (there's such a severe gap between the two that they came together to help produce the longest tennis match of all time). Let's start with the asset, the serve.
Two moments today illustrate how well Isner uses this shot to make up for other inconsistencies. On his serve early in the first set, he shanked a ground stroke and tried a volley that dropped straight off his racquet and landed on his side of the net; he was down 15-40. From there he hit a service winner and an absolute bullet ace for deuce. Two points later he held with another ace, a brutal kicker this time, out wide.
The same scenario played out in the second set. At 3-3, Isner belted an ugly, overcooked forehand wide to go down 15-40. This time he missed his first serve and decided to throw caution to the wind on the second. The ball seemed to veer wide; it was called in. Monaco challenged, but after he looked at the mark he shouted in frustration. He knew that it had caught, and that he might not get another chance like that against Isner. He was right on both counts. Hawk-Eye confirmed that the ball had clipped the outside of the sideline. Isner followed up with a service winner for deuce, and drilled another ace to hold.
Isner has a way of raising his service level when he needs it. You can see the confidence he has in the shot in the way that he carries himself between service points. He walks slowly, almost casually, but not quite casually. Where his fellow American Sam Querrey is easygoing, Isner is self-possessed. He strolls with the slow-footed assurance of someone who knows he owns the bigger gun. His final gesture, dribbling the ball between his legs, is the lull before the rifle shot.
Isner's serving advantage comes at a price: a tall man’s struggle with the return. Here it isn’t height that counts, but length; as in, the length of his arms and legs, and difficulty of coordinating them in the millisecond he has after the ball comes off his opponent’s racquet. The rule of thumb is to serve at a tall guy’s body and watch as he tries to get himself out of the way. Monaco dutifully followed this advice today, and it earned him the expected free points—Isner is especially prone to taking his two-handed backhand too close to his body, catching it late, and flipping it wide.
But his return has improved. On second balls Isner has become adept at lining them up and attacking them—a favorite is the return he hit past Roger Federer on match point in their Davis Cup tie last month, an inside-out backhand from the deuce court. Because grinding consistency will never be his forte, Isner commits to getting the most out of his second service returns so that he can start points offensively and end them quickly. It’s a style that comes with risks. In the final game of the match, Isner belted two outright service return winners, but on one of his match points he went big again and sent the ball over the baseline. More than with most pros, Isner’s game is based not on making every shot consistently, but on taking his cracks until he connects. He shouldn’t suffer much confusion about his game plan, but it’s still a style that requires an intelligent balancing of risks and rewards.
The Isner balance sheet doesn't end with the serve and return, of course. His height can make drop shot easier to hit, because he can take them so much higher than other players. At the same time, low volleys are, quite often, death. His length helps with his reach along the baseline; as long as he can get his feet gathered under him, that is. The question now is how far Isner can tip the ledgers in his favor in a baseline-heavy era that doesn’t favor him. Isner says he’s just coming into his own, just figuring out how to use his game, and at certain moments you can see that he's right. Then he smothers a forehand so badly that it barely makes it to the net, and you wonder again how he ever got as far on tour as he has. At the moment, Isner has a chance of making it farther in Indian Wells than he ever has. Andy Murray’s and Mardy Fish's early exits make him a solid bet to reach the semis.
Isner will never be an elegant player, even if it is fun to see and hear him put a charge into a forehand from up close. For now, I look forward to seeing how the experiment turns out, and how much farther up into the air it takes him.